2014-04-20

Timekeeping Issues

For those who celebrate - Happy Easter!

Peacekeeper Update: 45,732 words. I've solved one of my major problems (keeping my main character involved in the action) and I think I'm on my way to a solution for another issue that cropped up. I've passed the projected half-way point and things are moving along nicely.

My new position: Even though I've been working 12-hour days, I've still managed to squeeze in some writing time. I have been assigned to a special project at the nuke plant -- a preventative maintenance (PM) reduction team. We have been tasked with going through over 24,000 PMs to see if we can't extend the frequency or eliminate them all together. I was put on the team because of my background in Microsoft Access. I've been doing a lot of Access programming and we are starting to see some results. I love programming!

Time: We use expressions of time throughout the day without thinking twice about what it really means. It comes to us naturally. Most people can fairly accurately judge how long a minute is without using a clock. We all know how long a day, a week, a month, and a year are. But what if you lived on another planet? Can you see the problem?

Ancient humans created our current timekeeping system based on the rotation period of our planet around its axis and around its star. We group days in convenient bundles called weeks and months. This arrangement has worked for us for so long that we never stop to think about what it really means. If you were suddenly transported to another planet with a day lasting—say—24 hours, 37 minutes, and 24 seconds and a year lasting 686.98 days, your fancy Rolex watch would be useless for keeping time. (In case you're wondering, I put you on Mars.)

If you meet a beautiful (or hansom) Martian and you agree to meet for dinner in an hour – who will be late? Because of how we measure time, a second or a minute or an hour for us will not be the same as a Martian's equivalent. Would they even have an equivalent? Would an alien civilization divide their days into convenient groupings? Perhaps they don't have weeks or months. As a minimum, I assume they would have a definition for a year, a day, and at least one or two smaller units of time but the actual duration of these specific units would not be the same.

The problem is compounded when you expand your imagination to include a star-spanning civilization. Even if we simplify things and make the claim that we are the only intelligent species in the universe, how will we keep time on other worlds? How would we keep things synchronized? If a viable faster than light drive is ever developed and a suitable communications system is created to keep us linked all these issues will have to be resolved.

It's hard enough dealing with multiple units of measurement on this planet (metric vs American) and at least one multi-million dollar spacecraft was destroyed because of this error (http://articles.latimes.com/1999/oct/01/news/mn-17288). A star-spanning civilization must figure out a way to deal with this issue. A single standard time-keeping system would have to be used everywhere. Need a new hyperdrive generator for your ship? You'd better hope that it speaks the same language of time as your ship's computer or you might find yourself forever lost in space.

If you're an author of science fiction you might want to stop and seriously consider this issue. Most authors and all the movies coming out of Hollywood pretend this problem doesn't exist. People say, "I'll see you at the ship in an hour" and everyone knows exactly how long that is. People say, "It took us three weeks to get to our destination", and everyone assumes that a week is 7 days of 24 Earth-hours each. The only time this problem is mentioned is if the author describes an alien planet and then the days and years are put into Earth-time and then the subject is dropped. I'm just as guilty.


As an author, I think it's perfectly fine to gloss over this problem. Introducing new units of time and trying to describe the details of how time is kept would muddy the story. But as a writer of science fiction, I can't stop thinking of just how difficult the simple matter of keeping time is going to be in the distant future.